Top secret US space plane breaks space endurance record

(Photo: United States Air Force / Michael Stonecypher)The X-37B sits on the Vandenberg Air Force Base runway during post-landing operations Dec. 3. The X-37B, named Orbital Test Vehicle 1 (OTV-1), conducted on-orbit experiments for more than 220 days during its maiden voyage. It fired its orbital maneuver engine in low-earth orbit to perform an autonomous reentry before landing.

The X-37B, an unmanned reusable spaceplane similar to but far smaller than the Space Shuttle, broke its own record this week by spending 470 days orbiting the Earth. It will keep breaking the old record of 469 days in orbit as long as it remains in space.

The X-37B is a classified project of the US Air Force meant to give the USAF a spaceplane that can launch on short notice and remain in space for long periods of time. What experts agree on is that the spaceplane is currently being used as a test bed for new space-based surveillance technologies. Like the Space Shuttle, the X-37B is taken into space by a rocket but lands on its own power by gliding down to Earth.

Previous media reports said the X-37B will be involved in various experiments that will enable satellite sensors, subsystems, components and associated technology to be orbited and returned to Earth.

The spaceplane is operated by the Air Force's Rapid Capabilities Office, a unit that fast-tracks new technologies to help deal with short-term specific threats. The Rapid Capabilities Office also functions as a little acknowledged interface between the Air Force and the intelligence community.

The Air Force has revealed no details of the space flights, but some experts think the X-37B is playing a similar role as the Space Shuttle by carrying science and intelligence payloads. It could currently be testing experimental sensors for the National Reconnaissance Office or a new kind of signals intelligence package.

The record breaking mission, which still continues, is identified as USA-240. It is the third for the X-37B and began on Dec. 11, 2012 when the spaceplane was launched on an Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral. 

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